Advent is a time of preparation. The first week of Advent we lit the candle of hope. Hope begins with the acknowledgment of brokenness. The world is broken. The shooting in Oregon and the massacre in Connecticut unveiled a reasonless exercise of evil, which defies explanation. This is not the first time that violence surrounded the birth of the Christ child. The Gospel of Matthew records:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah—“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
It’s as if it were written yesterday. “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which is a lullaby, now sounds chilling in the context of Herod’s terror:
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
O little town of Newton. I pray it may fulfill its name to be a new town. A short time after Herod died, the people of Sephoris revolted, and the Romans destroyed the city, 35,000 people were enslaved, or driven from their homes, and 2,000 of them were taken to Jerusalem to be crucified as an example to the Jews of what Rome did to rebels. This weekend I’ve thought a lot about how growing up in poverty, being occupied by a foreign nation, surrounded by violence affected Jesus’ message and ministry. What do you suppose would be on Jesus’ Christmas list?
Early in the Gospel of Luke Jesus is baptized by John and then tempted in the desert. Immediately following his temptation he travels to Nazareth, the city in which he grew up, the city in which he heard stories from his childhood, the city in which he may have heard, “It’s because of you there are no men your age from Bethlehem.” He gets up and reads from Isaiah saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He rolled up the scroll, gave it to the attendant and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The first item on Jesus’ Christmas list is to bring good news. This is easy when things are going well, but what does good news look like in the midst of tragedy. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth mentioning again. Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is dead. Instead of telling his family that God needed another angel or that it was Lazarus’ time, or that the will of God is a mystery sometimes . . . Jesus weeps. First he weeps. Then he tells them, “I am the resurrection.” This tragedy is not the end of the story—but a word of caution. It takes time to hear this and believe this. As followers of Christ we offer ourselves to those in despair knowing that grieving takes time.
The second item on Jesus’ Christmas list is to proclaim release and recovery. One of my favorite books is Lord of the Rings. I especially like how the Ring is portrayed, as it’s own character. Frodo has to carry the Ring to Mount Doom. He simply can’t smash it or throw it away or give it to someone else to worry about. He carries it to the edge of a lake of fire, and just before it appears as though he is going to throw it into the fire and end evil for good, it overtakes him. So what is it that eventually leads to the Ring’s demise? Two things actually. Friendship and mercy. As Frodo and Sam are nearing the mountain, Frodo can’t go any further, so Sam, his companion actually carries him. It’s like the poem Footprints, set in Middle Earth. Frodo needed to be carried when he was spent. Secondly it was mercy that led to the Ring being destroyed. Halfway through the book The Hobbit, Bilbo has a chance to kill Gollum, but instead he has pity on him and decides to let him go. In the Lord of the Rings, the creature Gollum actually grabs the ring from Frodo wanting to claim it as his own, and in a joyful dance, slips and falls into the fire, the ring with him. The Ring is a powerful symbol of sin. Frodo carries the Ring to the edge of Hell, and he can’t let it go. It takes friendship and mercy to end its control over him. It takes a Christ-centered community to hold each other accountable in love, forgiveness, and mercy, as our text says today:
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Item number three on Jesus’ Christmas list is freedom. Sometimes we equate freedom with either having lots of choices or the ability to do what I want. This is not the Gospel. Freedom goes back to the beginning. God says to the man and woman in the garden, “You may freely eat of every tree except this one because when you eat from this tree, you will begin to forget who planted it.” That’s exactly what happened. The woman saw that the tree was good for food, the tree was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was to be desired to make one wise. There’s nothing wrong with wanting food or delight or having the desire for wisdom, but it was the tree and not the creator of the tree that was good. So what did God do? God placed himself on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that our knowledge of evil can be transformed in the action of goodness. Biblical freedom means that our desire rests in the heart of God, or that our heart breaks for what breaks God’s heart. Please know that the killing of innocent children is not the will of God. It breaks God’s heart. It is a false teaching to say that nothing happens outside of the will of God. If that were true, God would have not put on flesh to teach us how to live and how to die, so that we might again find life.
Item number four on Jesus’ Christmas list is the proclamation of favor. What would the world look like if we valued each other and proclaimed that people are precious? Remember what Gabriel said to Mary—Greetings favored one. God is with you. What better news can we proclaim? Some say that today is not the day to debate our laws. There is a part of me that agrees. There needs to be time to reflect and pray, but I also think that we keep saying today is not the day because we somewhere deep inside we know that we have lost the ability to debate in charity. Debate today means that we embarrass, burn, and trample our opponent. So, during an emotional time, it is not the time for debate because we have forgotten how to do it. We seem to no longer value each other.
Now I know that in the coming days there will be lots of debate about gun laws. There are some in this room who feel that we need stricter gun laws. There are also some in this room who think that stricter gun laws will do nothing to end violence. It seems that the answer is either “A” or “B.” Let me remind you of what CS Lewis said—“The devil likes a false dichotomy. It forces us to choose the lesser of two evils.” If the the Apostle Paul’s message could be summed up in a sentence if might be this: The Law does not save us. This debate is important, but understand that our time, energy, and faith need not only be placed in new laws or strengthening old ones. I don’t know the solution. I’m not that smart, but I do know how we can start. We can begin by proclaiming good news, proclaiming release and recovery, proclaiming freedom and favor. When our wish list matches with Jesus’ we find ourselves on the road which leads to life, a road which leads to sacrifice, and a road which leads to life eternal. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.